Administration eyes consolidation of Indian appraisals
Friday, August 15, 2003

The Bush administration is consolidating all appraisal functions at the Department of Interior, a move that could affect Indian trust lands.

Representatives of various agencies -- including the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST) -- have been meeting since July to study the issue. Their goal is to create a single departmental unit that will perform all land appraisals.

Special trustee Ross Swimmer believes the proposal has several benefits. Consolidation can improve services, ensure more accurate appraisals and reduce competition for scarce resources, he said in an interview.

But there are issues unique to Indian Country that have to be taken into account, he noted. Some tribes have taken over the appraisal function from the BIA through self-determination contracts. Trust lands also come with special legal considerations.

For those reasons, Swimmer said he has not committed to the consolidation. A decision will be made within the next two months whether to go forward.

"We have appraisers looking at the group to assess the concerns and to see if there's value to us in joining the effort," he said on Wednesday. "If there is, then we should certainly consider it. If there's not, I would not want to go any further with the effort. But I feel obligated that we should explore."

In June, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton announced the appraisal consolidation. Her move came in response to decades of criticism over the lack of independence of land appraisers, particularly those at the Bureau of Land Management. Just last month, Norton was forced to cancel a land exchange with the state of Utah after BLM appraisers blew the whistle on what amounted to a $100 million giveaway of federal land.

Indian land appraisals have suffered from similar concerns, as some appraisers have reported feeling pressure from BIA superintendents to assign certain values to trust lands. Those complaints led the Bush administration to take away the appraisal function from BIA and hand it to OST.

Tribal leaders have a standing request to reverse the decision, which came shortly after Norton announced the creation of BITAM. Former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb didn't consult tribes about the transfer but reluctantly agreed to it in early 2002 under a secretarial order that gives the special trustee the power to take over any trust-related function. Former special trustee Tom Slonaker requested the switch, not Swimmer.

The transfer appears to have had success in addressing some of the underlying complaints, Swimmer said. But there is still competition for resources with BLM's appraisers, who must conduct sub-surface appraisals of oil, gas and other minerals on Indian land, he said.

Appraisal sources in the field also report problems. Historic tension between OST and BIA has made the transfer somewhat difficult, they said. Although OST has authority over the appraisers, they continue to be paid out of the BIA budget.

If Indian land appraisals are consolidated to a departmental unit, Indian preference may not apply. "It's an issue that is on the table," Swimmer said. "I don't know if it would or not. If it became part of the reorganization, I'm not sure that [Indian preference] is applicable."

Some Indian program positions are already losing their preference status under the ongoing reorganization of BIA and expansion of OST. A memo from a Department of Interior solicitor reversed long-standing policy about recruiting and hiring preferences for qualified American Indian and Alaska Natives.

The inter-agency appraisal task force is made of up 15 representatives, including Dick Fitzgerald, a trust policy officer for OST, and Woodrow Hopper, director of human resources for BIA. They have until September 30 to establish the new organization.

If Swimmer thinks Indian appraisals should be shifted, he plans to consult with Indian Country. "I don't want to make a decision and then go to the tribes with it," he said.

Relevant Documents:
DOI: Assistant Secretary Lynn Scarlett Welcomes New Team Charged with Implementing Historic Land Appraisal Reforms (July 15, 2003) | DOI: Norton Announces Reform of Real Estate Appraisal Function (June 19, 2003)

Appraisal Reports:
Appraisal Foundation (August 2002) | BLM Response (October 2002)

Relevant Links:
Office of Special Trustee -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

Related Stories:
Norton admits Interior hid facts from Congress (7/24)
Indian employees challenging DOI reorganization (06/03)
Confusion detailed at Interior (10/16)
DOI land swap program to be reviewed (10/11)
Norton land deal subject of dispute (10/01)
DOI approved $100M land 'giveaway' (8/19)

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